The word on the street

30.09.2010 | Art , Blog , Culture | BY:

Ted Polhemus is anthropologist by training, but a photographer in practice. He spearheaded the notion of ‘style tribes’ in the mid-Nineties with the opening of his V&A Streetstyle show and accompanying book.  Sixteen years on, street style has evolved.  So, this evening, Polhemus is re-launching his influential book with some much-needed updates. We caught up with him to find out just what has been going on over the past couple of decades…

Why was it important to update the book now?
It was such a different world in 1994 when Streetstyle first appeared. I had thought we would see something interesting come from Japan but I had no idea just how interesting and how varied. Even more importantly, instead of one centre – one where it’s at – now, in the 21st Century, new styles can crop up anywhere and everywhere. It was important to celebrate this truly global transformation. And, to note the extent to which fashion is increasingly influenced by street style – the result being that today’s consumer demands to be part of the creative process and refuses to be led around by the nose like a passive fashion victim.

How did you get involved with PYMCA?
PYMCA started solely as a youth culture oriented photo library and, as I am myself also a photographer of street and club images, they were the people who handled my work. Then when expanded to also include a cultural research facility I contributed text and ideas. Although not a conventional publisher PYMCA is perfect for this book – bringing unequaled photo research, knowledge and international contacts into the project.

What is fundamentally different about street style now as opposed to when you first published this book in 1994?
The interesting thing for me is how fashion is so different in 2010 than it was in 1994 when Streetstyle first appeared.  Or consider how different it is today from what it was in the year I was born, 1947 when Dior launched his ‘New Look’. Today there isn’t just one new look, there are hundreds and thousands of them. Nor does the designer get to impose a ‘total look’ the way Dior once did: today most of us are creative consumers who sample & mix different styles of our own choosing. To be provocative: fashion has gone out of fashion and been replaced with personal, idiosyncratic, do your own thing style.

Would you say style tribes still exist?
As for street style the big news is that just as people today seem unwilling to conform to the dictates of fashion, so too most are unwilling to conform to the ‘uniform’ of a particular style tribe. In, say, the mid Sixties you could be a dedicated follower of fashion, a Mod or a Rocker. Now most of us are just us – sampling & mixing our own unique style ‘statement’. This is true for the majority today in the UK, Europe and the USA where street style first appeared. If you look to places like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil you will on the other hand see lots of different, active style tribes. From the perspective of the UK or America, however, although plenty of marketing people and (how I hate the term, sorry) ‘Cool Hunters’ keep sighting new tribes on the horizon, I think that if examined properly (for example actually ask people ‘Are you an Emo’?) we find an unprecedented epidemic of individuality. Never before in human history have people had such choice in how to look: for most of human history your tribe laid down very strict guidelines on appearance. After that, for about 500 years, fashion decreed what was in and what was out and people did as they were told. Now anything goes and it is certainly exciting.

Why do you think people are nervous to be associated with a certain style – and now rather than before?
I think people are fed up with being crammed into stylistic boxes – more often than not, labels which have been imposed from without. Once people experienced the thrill of creating their own, unique look there was no going back. When will today’s fashion journalist realize that their job now is to celebrate and present the diversity which is all around us rather than to try to cram everything into a single ‘direction’? The world of fashion – style – has changed so much but, interestingly, many professionals within the fashion industry don’t seem to have noticed.

Can you sum up the difference between fashion and style for us?
Historically, fashion came only from professional designers, from the upper class end of the market, defined a single ‘direction’ (a ‘New Look’) which all but the socially suicidal would conform to. Style bubbles up from all sorts of unlikely places – often the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, from crazy teenagers, musicians experimenting with visual as well as musical style. Also, while fashion was always about constant change, style can be happy to settle on timeless classics. Do people really still, religiously change everything in their wardrobe every season? I can remember when people did. But I think we’ve changed our attitude to change and with it our attitude to fashion changed for its own sake. I can remember when it was a compliment to say so and so was ‘trendy’, now, more often, it is a put down.

How does your street style work feed into your other projects?
I’m currently working on a new book about my baby boom generation and, while incorporating a lot about street style, it also opens out to examine design in all its forms. That’s my thing: using style as a mirror onto what is happening at every level in history and in our own times.

Which other (street style or otherwise) photographers do you admire?
I so love the work of Martin Parr – but really it’s a love of all those photographers going back even a hundred years who have recorded real people exhibiting themselves in public.

Do you keep up to date with what people like Facehunter and the Sartorialist are doing?
Not on a day-to-day basis but I think that sites like these (and there are actually hundreds now) are the way of the future. Professional models where clothes which some stylist has chosen and which you suspect they might not choose themselves just look so unexciting now. All over the world – Helsinki to Havana, Mexico City to Tehran (both of which have their own style blogs) – people are transforming themselves into works of art. And doing it themselves. DIY.

Lastly, what’s your style? In what era/style were you most comfortable?
In my time I’ve been a Modernist (think Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles Davis), Beat, Hippy, Glam Rocker, Punk, Goth, Perv (I wore a black latex catsuit to the launch of the Streetstyle exhibition in 1994 at the V&A) and now (afraid to see if I can still fit into the latex catsuit but also keen to rescue the world from our present epidemic of casualness which threatens civilization as we know it) have returned to a minimal, less is more Modernist style. At the book and exhibition launch at The Book Club tomorrow Sept 30 I will be wearing my black Thai silk suit, black shirt, a tie the colour of deadly jungle snakes and black Italian shoes (not trainers!).

The Streetstyle book launch and exhibition private view is on Thursday 30th September 6pm-2am at The Book Club, 100 Leonard Street, EC2A 4RH

Images by Ted Polhemus and Belen Asad, courtesy of PYMCA.

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